We assume that the top leadership qualities include having a presence and a special ability to persuade. This fits into the traditional view of leadership, the “great man theory.” Think back to high school: George Washington was a “born leader” of men. The modern equivalent is the “visionary.” This is the single individual who dreams up incredible ideas and never stops working. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg are the prototypes of this model.
But charismatic leaders aren’t always as successful as those examples. This kind of leader has the potentially dangerous quality of magnetism, which can lead to a variety of pitfalls.
One problem is that this kind of leader can charge an organization into hyper growth. Their unique vision, ideas, and ability to inspire people may lead to incredible short-term gains. But in the long run, slow and steady growth (as the old saying goes) wins the race. Leaders who listen to their employees and make decisions that benefit the whole organization will create a sustainable growth model.
Uniquely gifted leaders may rely too much on their talents — they lean on their ability to own a room and to motivate employees. They earn accolades from everyone around them, and this positive feedback makes inertia easy. The most extreme case of this is a cult leader, who exists only in tandem with his or her devotees. This can make it easy to ignore difficult problems or discuss unpopular solutions. True leaders are more concerned about the health of the organization rather than being well liked.
Sometimes, a charismatic leader impresses initially with a well-crafted message. They appear to have a vision for the organization, and people are excited to follow this magnetic individual. But after a few months or a year, employees look around and realize little has changed. The leader has the ability to say the right things, but can’t follow it up with action.
This is what many people accuse politicians of: making promises they can’t keep. This often leads to trust issues. Authentic leaders keep their goals realistic and focus on how to achieve them.
Another common problem for charismatic leaders is that followers aren’t willing to question their decisions. This may be because the leader has ignored or skirted questions in the past. Or it may be because there’s social pressure to accept the leader’s views. Either way, a culture of compliance will lead to stagnation.
Ultimately, leaders need some level of magnetism. Inspiring and motivating everyone in the organization is a key aspect of being a leader. However, authentic leaders need to avoid exercising complete authority over their organizations. It’s mission critical for businesses to crowdsource decision-making and break out of traditional hierarchies.